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After school clubWe must have zero tolerance to teachers hitting children

By Kate Hilpern

A PE teacher who slapped a four-year-old boy following an after-school football class has not been punished by the judge trying his case. How can this be right? Or even possible?

It all started when the child, who attended a school in the West Midlands, had a tantrum after being asked to stop pulling Post-it notes off an ideas display by his teacher Ian Webber. The tantrum, which included the boy kicking out, led the 54-year-old teacher to ‘lose his rag’ and slap the boy twice on the knees.

Webber denied the charge of assaulting the boy by beating, but the district judge ruled that the evidence was ‘compelling’ and reminded Webber that the law did not entitle him to smack the child.

Yet despite the ruling, the judge handed the teacher a conditional discharge because the incident will already have a ‘huge impact’ on his future. ‘You only got involved to try and help,’ said the judge.

No matter that this teacher made an ‘outstanding contribution’ to education and that it was an isolated incident in his long teaching career. ‘Smacking’ (a word I detest because it sugar-coats what it really is - hitting) is bad enough when done adult to adult, but inexcusable when done to a child who is unable to defend themselves. Moreover, according to the prosecutor, the teacher did more than just hit the child - he ‘picked the boy up by the arm so his feet left the ground’.

This inexcusability is the reason corporal punishment became illegal in British state schools in 1986 (and eventually in private schools in 1998, until 2000 in Scotland and until 2003 in Northern Ireland) and it is the reason that psychologists have long been calling for the hitting of children in the family home to be outlawed. A full ban on smacking children is already in place in other countries including Sweden, Ireland, Spain, Germany and Portugal.

Hitting is never an effective way of disciplining a child, regardless of the circumstances, and there is plenty of evidence that it can have negative long-term effects on a child’s development. Study after study shows it impacts a child’s mental health and what’s more, it perpetuates damaging messages about violence, potentially encouraging children to behave in a more aggressive and violent manner themselves.

This matters when you consider that one woman in four experiences domestic violence in her lifetime and two women are killed each week by a current or former partner in England and Wales – both figures that the charity Refuge report as being ‘grossly underestimated’ because the cap on the number of violent crimes published, set at five per victim, means that even if a woman experienced 100 incidents of domestic violence, only five would make it into the official data. Men, too, are victims of domestic violence, with increasing cases reported in the news.

 

In such a climate, what was this teacher thinking by essentially teaching a young child that the best way to deal with a stressful situation is to be violent? He could hardly claim self-defence – the child was four. It is a teacher’s responsibility to be a good role model and to show children how to be good, respectful citizens. If they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be working with children.

At least the judge acknowledged that the disgraced teacher is likely to face a summary dismissal for gross misconduct. It is imperative for schools – and I would argue the law – to have zero tolerance to teachers who hit children. Yes, it is stressful being a teacher and – as with parents – adults can be pushed to their absolute limits by more challenging children. But, as the judge said himself, ‘You were the adult, he was the child’.

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